Saturday 19 August 2017

The Iniquity of Oblivion

Yesterday my researches took me deep into Essex, to visit an extraordinary monument in the church of Holy Cross, Felsted. It's almost certainly by the great Epiphanius Evesham and it commemorates the 1st and 2nd Barons Rich. I'll spare you the details, but suffice to say that it's a magnificent monument, beautifully designed and executed, with a grand architectural framework, brilliantly modelled figures of the two Barons, father and son, and a range of panels demonstrating Evesham's skills in relief carving and in incised design. The impact is stunning - not for the first time when encountering Evesham's work, I gasped audibly - and, at the same time, decidedly unsettling.
 Look at the 1st Baron Rich [above], who reclines in his Lord Chancellor's robes of office atop the chest tomb - that's not a face you can examine for long without a growing uneasiness. It certainly isn't the face - or the pose - of a man serenely awaiting the afterlife. It seems to be an all too vivid portrait of an angry, impatient man. Rebarbative is the word that comes to mind (reinforced by that absurdly long beard). This is no portrait, though - the 1st Baron R died in 1567. Nor is it a portrait of the son, the 2nd Baron [below], who died in 1581. He kneels at the head of the tomb chest, with one arm missing and his detached left hand, holding his right gauntlet, lying eerily on the plinth of the monument.

The much delayed monument was finally erected some 40 years after the death of the 2nd Baron, the issue having been forced by the 3rd Baron, who stipulated in his will that his illustrious grandfather and father should have their memorial within 18 months of his (the 3rd Baron's) death.
 So, who was the 1st Baron Rich, whose unsettling non-likeness dominates this magnificent monument? He was, even by the standards of the Tudor court, a notably unscrupulous and ruthless operator, of whom no one had a good word to say in his lifetime or since. He not only survived but thrived, amassing wealth and titles, through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and on into the early years of Elizabeth. His modus operandi was to get close to the most powerful personages, then betray and abandon them as soon as it became expedient and move on to the next rising power. He sedulously persecuted Catholics and Protestants alike, as the wind blew, and even participated in torture himself, turning the wheel of the rack on the unfortunate Anne Askew, the only woman ever to have been tortured in the Tower of London. There's a colourful account of the worst of his misdeeds here...
 And yet he lies memorialised by the greatest monument-maker of his time, in his grandest surviving monument. Truly (as Sir Thomas Browne wrote), 'the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.'


  1. It was only after reading this that it occurred to that this was the Rich of whom Thomas More spoke so slightingly at his trial: "neither I, nor no man else to my knowledge, ever took you to be a man of such credit as in any matter of importance I or any other would at any time vouchsafe to communicate with you. ... you were esteemed very light of your tongue, a great dicer, and of no commendable fame." Or so Roper quotes him.

  2. Yes, that's the man - and an all too accurate summation of his character, to judge by the record of his deeds. Hilariously his monument shows him standing with Fortitude and Justice, Hope and Charity, and Truth and Wisdom!